HR 296 and the Politicization of the Armenian Genocide: Assumptions, Questions, Pitfalls
By Asbed Kotchikian and Taline Voskeritchian
The passage of Resolution 296 by the US House of Representatives (HR 296) on October 29 recognizing the Armenian Genocide has been welcomed and cheered by Armenians as a historic event. However, the timing of the passage raises some questions that seem to pale, and often disappear, in the world-wide Armenian reaction to recognition. The congratulatory discourse is often carried out as if this event had happened in a vacuum, outside the sphere of international, Armenia, and diaspora politics.
The euphoria over the passing of HR 296 can certainly give temporary solace and renewed vigor to most Armenians in the US in their push to find new points of leverage with Turkey. But several assumptions surrounding the issue of genocide recognition in the overall strategy and tactics of making Turkey accept and admit responsibility for a crime it committed and that it has denied for more than a century need to be challenged. In the last few days, the euphoria has been laced with outrage at the action of of Senator Lindsey Graham to block a Senate resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide.
For decades Armenians have argued that the Genocide is a historic fact and should not be politicized. This position is advanced to counter Turkish claims that no such thing as genocide ever happened and that the Armenians are trying to politicize the genocide.
The argument that the failure of previous attempts to have the Genocide recognized in the US—be that in Congress by both Republicans and Democrats or in the State Department—resulted from the policy of not harming US relations with Turkey makes the timing of this resolution at best expedient and at worst hypocritical. Had the recent Turkish invasion of Northern Syria and the ensuing political outrage among US policy makers not occurred, it is highly doubtful that this resolution would have passed with such an overwhelming support.
HR 296 is nothing more than political maneuvering by a House of Representatives intent on “punishing” Turkey for its actions in northern Syria. The passing of the resolution was as politicized an act as the successive and well-documented failures in the past decades.
Politicizing historical events, especially calamitous ones, is not a sin nor is it blasphemous. Many nations and states have used national tragedies for political gains. There is nothing wrong with that as long as there is a clear strategy and a follow-up to reap those political gains. From this perspective, Armenians—in diaspora community organizations worldwide and in The Republic of Armenia--can also politicize the Genocide issue not just for the sake of forcing Turkey into recognition, but also to create a platform on whose basis direct contacts with Turkish society and government can lead to the eventual achievement of justice and recognition in the form of reparations both financial and territorial.
In the general discussions about the politicization of the genocide, one key factor is often omitted. It is a factor that has to do with the internal dynamics and modus operandi of diaspora organizations. Over the decades, the Genocide—its history, its victims, and its on-going denial—has come to function as an internal oath of survival and renewal, a ritual, if you will, that community organizations, the church, and individuals claiming a public platform can’t live without. Let’s say it for what it is: The stranglehold that the Genocide has over Armenian public life often instrumentalizes the national tragedy, reducing everything to a mixture of moral absolutism, therapeutic jargon, and public relations copy.
Resorting to such absolutism—non-recognition is “bad” and recognition is “good”—is naïve at best. The world, especially the political one, is seldom governed by morality. While in some cases policy makers have the easy task to adopt policies that are both “right” and “good”, seldom do the “right” and “good” choices converge. In the case of HR 296, the moral choice (advocated by Armenians) converged with the right choice (as calculated by a political motivated and savvy legislators in the US House of Representatives). However, this is the exception and not the norm. As such, it is as important to acknowledge the congruence of events as it is to celebrate moral victories.
History is full of instance of criminals who would seldom recognize a crime they committed if the admission is not forced on them. The Nuremberg trials, the military coup in Rwanda and the NATO intervention in Kosovo are just some examples of accountability being forced upon the perpetrators of crimes with the threat or the actual use of force. Over 30 countries around the world have partly or completely recognized that the Ottoman Empire—and by extension modern Turkey—was responsible for the extermination of most of Armenian population residing in the Empire and for the denial of that crime. Yet, today, Turkey is no closer to accepting that responsibility than it was three decades ago.
The euphoria surrounding HR 296 is sustained by the belief that genocide recognition will lead to a concerted effort by the international community to put pressure on Turkey itself to admit its crime of genocide. The more countries recognize the Genocide, the stronger will the pressure be on Turkey—so goes the working assumption of Armenian lobbying organizations, activists and celebrities who work for genocide recognition, as well as large sectors of the Armenian public. In the implementation of this view, one important fact is often minimized or completely disregarded: For all its internal problems and its external policy challenges, Turkey is a geopolitical heavyweight in the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe. It has an economy that ranks in the world’s top 20. Turkish policy is far from being influenced by political statements made and resolutions passed in foreign countries, even when those countries—the US, for example—may have a temporary bone to pick with Turkey. Not only that, but Turkey is also headed by an ultra-nationalist who seems to have little regard for minority populations in his country.
Recognition of the Genocide by various countries has created solidarity among large segments of Turkish society, in what they perceive as foreign countries trying to marginalize Turkey (in perhaps a neo-colonial analogy). It is, therefore, not implausible that the Armenian euphoria and outrage may be fodder for the leaders of the Turkish state as they rally their citizens against the common enemy.
The absence of long- and short-term strategies is also evident in another sphere of Armenian life. The reaction surrounding HR 296 highlights the near-total disregard for the Armenian population of Turkey. The welfare of this community--its institutions and culture--seems to be minimized at best and ignored completely at worst. Such a huge chasm between the pronouncements of Armenians in the US and Europe and the anxieties of the Armenians in Turkey does not bode well for the future of the Armenian nation and its communities worldwide. If we want to think in a pan-Armenian (a term that has become so popular in Armenia and the diaspora of late) way, we must think beyond interests of one sector of the Armenian world though this sector may be the loudest and the most prosperous. The “Star Trek” dictum that “the needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the few” is an apt description of the present approach that views the Armenians of Turkey unimportant, even expendable for the higher cause.
Over a century and a half ago, a socially conservative yet politically savvy Armenian clergyman urged Armenians to rely on themselves in the pursuit of their rights and demands. The “iron ladle” directive was later re-articulated by Armenian intellectuals across the political spectrum, especially during the months and years preceding Armenia’s independence in 1991. These ideas were most clearly articulated by one such manifesto known as “The Law to Exclude Third Force,” which, among other things, criticizes Armenians for seeking the help of outside powers in the pursuit of their national agenda, and, like the clergyman a century ago, put forth once more the challenge of self-reliance.
Unfortunately, it seems that seeking the “support” of outside powers in Armenians’ search for justice has become the norm rather than the exception. This state of affairs shows that Armenian political and strategic thought over the last decades has been reverting to “classic” reliance on foreign powers in the pursuit of justice.
In the late 1980s as the Karabakh movement was igniting, one prescient intellectual, warning about the dangers of relying on foreign assistance, argued that those outside powers—primarily in the West—to whom Armenians look for support in fighting oppression and injustice were themselves involved in oppressing Armenians in the past and neglecting their demands. He wrote: “The [Armenian] people continue to be exploited. The chains, once on their hands and feet, continue to make their weight felt. The chains weigh on the tongues and brains.”
Asbed Kotchikian teaches at Bentley University’s Global Studies department. His areas of research include socio-political change in the Middle East and the former Soviet space.
Taline Voskeritchian teaches at Boston University’s College of Communication. Her work has appeared in The Nation, London Review of Books, Journal of Palestine Studies and other on-line and print publications.